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Oliver! (Watermill Theatre, Newbury)

"Lionel Bart's glorious musical works wonderfully in the Watermill"

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

[Lionel] Bart's glorious musical works wonderfully in the intimate wood-panelled space of the Watermill, which can be warm — or sinister. Designer Tom Rogers works miracles to conjure up workhouse, parlour, thieves' den and London cityscapes — even London Bridge and St Paul's - with a split-level set, which director Luke Sheppard's wonderful troupe of eleven actor/musicians use to full advantage to generate enormous energy and excitement. It's probably no coincidence that they are perfectly matched, in numbers as in verve, by three alternating troupes, each of eleven young actors, drawn from the local community. It's hard to believe they've had no formal training, for from the moment they file on stage bearing their workhouse tables, they move and amuse and thrill and they have an obvious rapport with the adult cast. Raiko Gohara is a perfect Oliver, at once feisty and vulnerable and Rhydian Watson's Artful Dodger is as clever, cheeky and resourceful as his moniker suggests. Their diction is perfect and choreographer Tim Jackson gives them lovely simple movements that they execute with equal precision.

Lighting Designer Howard Hudson and Sound Designer Tom Marshall work brilliantly together to enhance both sinister and joyous. The ominous city soundscape that opens the show is a reminder that Bart evoked the darkness of Victorian London long before Sondheim's equally powerful Sweeney Todd. The extraordinary range of instruments played by the cast adds to these evocations as much as to the gaiety and delight of Bart's music. Hats and caps off to musical arranger Paul Herbert and musical director Joey Hickman for marshalling these skills, including accordions and tubas, to such thrilling effect.

The adult cast displays high energy and huge versatility too as they morph from one character to another. Graham Lappin and Susannah van den Berg move effortlessly from that greedy, grasping, heartless - and very funny - duo Mr Bumble and Widow Corney sharing "I Shall Scream" (indeed a scream!) to such affecting songs as "Who Will Buy?" The denizens of the funeral parlour, the Sowerberries, Tomm Coles and Rhona McGregor, apprentice Noah Claypole (Joey Hickman) and maid Charlotte (Deborah Hewitt) deliver their gleefully ghoulish number "It's Your Funeral" with great verve and go on to prove their versatility in various roles and on various instruments too.

Alice Fearn's Nancy radiates warmth — genuinely big-hearted! She has a glorious voice too and Rachel Dawson's pretty, graceful Bet complements her perfectly. Her Bill Sikes, Kit Orton, is truly menacing, from his entrance number, "My Name", first just a deep voice and then a towering figure silhouetted in the gloom. Cameron Blakely manages both to follow in the tradition begun by the late, great Ron Moody and to make Fagin his own. His is a worryingly sympathetic portrait of the rascally child exploiter (especially impressive as Blakely donned Fagin's filthy robes with just two weeks' rehearsal when the original actor fell ill). And Steve Watts' Mr Brownlow is beautifully warm and authoritative.

In a programme note, Sheppard writes that the story is essentially about a child's search for love. In the warm embrace of the Watermill, as well as outside in the garden, where we all sang "Oom Pah Pah" together, he has succeeded in bringing actors and audience together to find that love.

Oliver! runs at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury until 19 September. For more information or to book tickets, click here.